Wellington actor Marshall Napier digs deep to play dairy farmer in new film Bellbird


Marshall Napier knew nothing about cows before joining the Bellbird cast to play a Northland dairy farmer. She’ll be right, he said. 

Words: Claire McCall

Marshall Napier, the Wellington-born actor playing a dairy farmer in Bellbird, says he wouldn’t know his Red Bands from a red herring. He’s a committed vegetarian who believes the lilt he has acquired over three decades working in Australia is “neutral Antipodean”.

Yeh right.

So he was in for some joshing from fellow cast members of Bellbird, the feature debut of director Hamish Bennett, set to screen at the upcoming New Zealand International Film Festival, when he pronounced the line: “Must have been hard; she likes giving me stick.”

He reframed the “i” in stick to be closer to the Kiwi “u”, but in so doing was careful to avoid an enunciation that was too pastiche. Acting is a profession where you don’t want to over-egg the pudding.

 

The night before filming began, Marshall flew in from the slick city with its operatic sails to another world.

To post-and-wire fenced paddocks against the rugged sweep of podocarp Northland forest. To a close-knit community that socialized at the rugby club and held market days in the hall. To a part of the country where the backblocks and birdsong became protagonists in the plot.

That evening, he sat alone in the Maungakaramea farmhouse rented for the crew letting the extraordinary quiet and darkness wash over him. “It was uncanny,” he says. “But it didn’t bother me. I enjoy contrasts.”

He may know little – make that nothing – about cows (he describes the jerseys “what breed were they?” in Bellbird as very docile), or have minimal experience of early-morning milking. But he’s eminently qualified to play Ross, a farmer who after his wife’s unexpected death must learn to communicate with his son to cement the legacy of the family farm.

Marshall is a master at the silence that speaks volumes.

“I grew up in the suburbs among men with a deep reserve about anything emotional,” he says. His father, a businessman who later bred horses, never quite understood his career choice. The pair found it hard to talk, dancing around each other like almost-strangers.

“We didn’t relate well as human beings, which is odd because we shared some temperamental similarities.”

As a youth, Marshall dropped out of an art course at a Wellington polytechnic when he discovered amateur theatre. Treading the boards felt like something visceral: a new kind of reality.

“One of the reasons I got into acting was to break away from the emotional straitjacket with which I grew up. I had found a place where you can legitimately show emotion.”

Bellbird is a gentle film that takes a light-of-touch approach to the weighty subjects of grief and loss relying on visuals, Kiwi humour and few words to show and tell the story. Seated on a tractor, stopped suddenly on a pathway through the woods, Ross finally allows the tears to flow.

The scene is sensitively filmed, the landscape embracing a character whose heart is broken. “It is hard to prepare for scenes like that. You pray that it is going to be there when you reach for it.”

It was and is. Marshall has close relationships with his actor daughter Jessica (who he appeared with in McLeod’s Daughters) and his son Reuben, a nurse who works at a hospital in Newcastle. His other daughter Rose, from a second marriage, is just 16.

When Bellbird debuted at the Sydney Film Festival, he found it confronting to see it for the first time in its entirety on a massive screen in front of a 2000-strong audience. His mother, who died a few months before the final wrap, had wanted to see the film too.

“It was sad that she didn’t get to because she was always supportive of me, although she probably thought I was crazy.”

At 67, Marshall, who has written a couple of plays, has returned to drawing as a hobby – cartoon-like caricatures of faces mainly, perhaps as another way to amplify emotion. As he continues to stride along the unpredictable yet scripted path, he has no plans to exit stage left.

“I started acting professionally at the age of 23, and it was something that I was drawn to. God willing, I will work until I drop.”

Bellbird premieres at the NZIFF on 20 July and in NZ cinemas on November 7.

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